Ambition isn’t a biblical sin, as it happens. Avarice, yes; vanity, too; hubris another viable option. This religious fable from Darren Aronofsky features a blend of these directorial characteristics as it wends its way toward resolution of sorts.
Beginning as a tale of marital idyll broken by interloping annoyances, Mother!‘s opening act is a taut and engaging psychological journey, following the Jennifer Lawrence’s naive young wife as she attempts to understand why her husband repeatedly permits strangers to invade their home. Javier Bardem flits wonderfully between reassuring normalcy and bemusing blitheness, and Lawrence plays her somewhat limited part admirably, as is her wont.
Aronofsky insists on the camera hugging Lawrence, often going through scenes primarily focused on her eyes and face straight-on. This contributes effectively to a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation, mirroring the character’s state of mind and leading to some relatively effective scares. The film’s cast steadily expands, to match the growing unease felt by Veronica (a name gleaned only from the credits, not evasive dialogue). By the time copious extras are involved in proceedings, she has journeyed into legitimate disturbance and trauma.
Mother! pivots into a more openly allegorical territory partway through, in the process gaining a frenetic pace of action and an unfortunate loss of cohesion. We are thrown biblical retellings with abandon – Cain and Abel appear, the Eucharist is shockingly, if predictably, recreated, and the garden of Eden is disturbed by an apparently unknowing couple. These moments reward knowledgeable viewers, and Aronofsky carries us through them at a fair clip.
These tales, dancing around the central plot of the film, are a frustration, however. The allegories and nods are plentiful, but their intention is elusive. If this is a story of the creative process, comparing it to divine intervention and familial generation, is Mother! bringing any original ideas to the table? Comparing the act of writing to the act of conception is not an insight on the level Aronofsky seems to believe; presenting retellings of stories from the Bible would be more engaging if paired with intelligible commentary on their content.
As the plot escalates, the action becomes more and more shocking, in theory more than in practice – the imagery is signposted and predictable in a manner which undermines its capacity to impress. The acceleration of time and events makes for diverting viewing, and occasional thrills, but also serves a further disconnecting factor, driving the film away an engagement with reality and human experience.
Mother! feels like an artistic concept executed efficiently, but its ideas are ultimately more slight than the two hour runtime and stellar cast deserve, and struggles to deliver the profundity its self-confidence warrants.